PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: High Fidelity — Amanda at the Starting Gate

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: High Fidelity — Amanda at the Starting Gate
The good will was practically palpable Dec. 7 at the Imperial where High Fidelity opened to high-fives all over the place from cheerleading, ready-to-be-converted first-nighters.

Not the least of this night of firsts was the fact that Amanda Green was making her Broadway debut, supplying lyrics for Tom Kitt's music and formally turning into a second-generation theatrical wordsmith. Her father, Adolph Green, shared the longest collaboration in showbiz history (61 years) with Betty Comden, who passed away Nov. 23, 15 days short of this symbolic passing-of-the-torch event. Because of this, there was a certain bittersweet feel to the evening that was still present amid all the merriment.

In the press-receiving line in the foyer of Roseland following the show, Green smiled wanly when condolences were extended. It was clear Comden had been a formative influence in shaping her career, as indeed she'd been to all females writing lyrics today.

Inside, seated at one of the V.I.P. tables that consumed the dance floor was her mother, actress Phyllis Newman, giving off megawatts of maternal pride that was seconded by some auxiliary star-lighting from Lauren Bacall, a longtime friend of the Green family.

Green was pretty steeped in pride herself: "I was proud of the actors. I was proud of moments that connected with the audience. I'm just awed. It takes so many people to write a musical, and I'm proud we worked together and created a show we all believe in."

Yes, she has "a couple of projects in the works, but I can't talk about them right now." This project took five years of her life to bring to fruition —ever since she saw Stephen Frears' 2000 movie version of Nick Hornby's 1995 novel about a likable slacker who runs Championship Vinyl, the last real record store on earth, with a staff of rock geeks.

In its three incarnations, the store had a different place on earth. The book set it in London, but, because John Cusack played our lovesick hero in the movie, the scenery was shifted to Chicago. Now, for the stage musical, Brooklyn is the anointed locale.

Which is perfectly fine with the author. "After I wrote the book and it started to be published in other countries," said Hornby, "no one ever said to me, 'Oh, this is what life is like in London.' They would say, 'Oh, my brother's like that' or 'My boyfriend's like that' or 'I'm like that,' so I realized, although I was writing locally, I was writing about people who live in first-rate cities. It's always going to make sense if you see it that way."

High Fidelity is his first Broadway musical, ever. "I've seen musicals in London — not many, mind you — but I've never seen one on Broadway." So, perhaps, his euphoria is understandable. "I loved it. I so loved it. I thought it was inspiring. It had a lot of warmth, soul, energy. I thought it would be okay, but I wasn't expecting it to be as good as it was."

Furthermore, he thought his characters were treated with fidelity by the music-makers. "I mean, considering it's a musical," he qualified, "it was incredibly faithful to the book."

David Lindsay-Abaire, heretofore a writer of straight (2006's Tony-nominated Rabbit Hole) and not-so-straight plays (Kimberly Akimbo), is the person to thank for that. It was with some trepidation that Lindsay-Abaire went off the high board into musical comedy.

Of course, he conceded, it was difficult to get in harness with others when you're used to pulling the plow alone. "It's very hard for someone who has never done it. But, when you collaborate, you find things you'd never have found on your own so it's also liberating."

And he's going back for seconds. "I have no choice. Shrek is up next, and I've got to stay on that train. We'll have the first draft by March and then do a workshop soon after that."

High Fidelity had its challenges, he confessed. "I think the biggest challenge was overcoming my fear of the book, which I loved so deeply. I was determined not to mess it up. In terms of craft, the biggest challenge was activating a very inactive protagonist. His problem is that he's stuck in every way, and he doesn't take action. To get him to do something was the hardest part. But it's a musical so we made it more of a love story, opened up his heart and let him sing while in pursuit of The Girl. That's how we did it."

By taking that plot tack, the musical book minimizes the record-shop milieu and its full quota of eccentrics on both sides of the counter — in particular, a star-making turn worthy of Oscar consideration by Jack Black, playing a record-clerk who goes ballistic when a customer asks about lesser talents (in his exalted view) like John Tesh or Celine Dion.

"The music-store life is what everybody remembers — the love story is secondary in the movie," allowed the adapter. "The play has as many store scenes, but I do think we have more of a love story than the movie ultimately does. We have stuff from the book, too."

According to director Walter Bobbie, the novel was mined as much as the movie. "Very, very often, we'd go back to the book," he said. "Whenever we were in trouble, we went back to the book — that's where the answers were. They kept the characters on course."

Of course, the comfy ambiance of the music-store goings-on could have produced a new Susanswerphone — as in Bells Are Ringing, the Comden & Green show that bowed at the Shubert 50 years ago Nov. 29. "We're doing very much the show we wanted to do," said Bobbie. "I didn't know what it was going to be, but I wanted to work with those three writers, and I love these producers. They showed real courage and taste when we started and just basically had Hornby's book and then Tom played about six songs for me."

Composer Kitt, Broadway-debuting at 32, had specific objectives in his score. "I think I wanted to be true to Nick Hornby's book and celebrate pop music in as many genres as I could, to really bring out that world. There's hip-hop, straight-ahead rock, R&B, soul…"

His second theatre step, he said, is for Second Stage. "I'm working on a show called Giving a Lecture that Second Stage is developing, tentatively for fall." His collaborator this time will be Brian Yorkey, who did lyrics for Making Tracks and Wedding Banquet.

Bobbie's next move will be to Guadeloupe (a vacation) — then he'll check up on his current productions of White Christmas, which he directed for the holidays around the country. Afterwards, he said, there is going to be some serious huddling about bringing in a New York production and making it an annual tradition here. "I think we're hoping for that, but we want to make sure that the show is sturdy before we brought it in."

Will Chase finally gets his first big star spot on Broadway and doesn't have to share the part at all (he was one-sixth of Lennon — and, most people think, the best-sixth). Sorting through his love life, past and present, and minding the store, clerks and customers alike, he seems to be constantly on the go. It's an illusion, he said.

"So much of the time I'm on stage, but I get to coast some — well, I won't say coast, but there are a few times in the first act where others share the burden. Everybody's got their little moment, and I get to watch them with the audience and don't have to work so hard.

"It's one of those roles where you're dying to do it, then you're doing it and thinking, 'Man, this is really hard!' But to have that contact with the audience every night is great."

Blonde and beautiful Jenn Colella, late of Urban Cowboy, has gotten back on the mechanical bull to play the role of Chase's unchastened and elusive true love. "It's a strong female role, I think," she said. "They worked hard to beef her up a little bit and make her that way. I feel connected to this character. I'm kinda growing up and doing a bit more mature roles, and she is moving from just being a legal aide lawyer to a corporate lawyer. And we're both in the process of discovering what we really want out of life."

As the New Age-y mystic luring Colella into his den of sin, Jeb Brown enjoys the role on stage and off: "My wife is having a baby in about a week so it's a lively time in my life, and this guy is a great character to be playing right now because he's very soothing. He's soothing to me, he's soothing to my wife, he's soothing to everybody around me. It's a great way to spend the evening — in a vague state of bliss, hopefully comic bliss."

It's his first child, and it will be a girl. "It's going to be a High Fidelity baby," he crowed, "and I would like to say that, after the show is fully dilated, my wife can start dilating."

Chief among the record-clerk misfits is Christian Anderson as the tentative timid soul who's allowed a little love story once he overcomes the enormous artistic barrier of her being a John Tesh fan. "He's so sweet and soulful," said Anderson, "and I love that he get a chance to sing and have a little romantic story. He finally gets to come out of his shell and be involved in life. He makes people go 'Ahhhh.'" Making the character even sweeter to him is the fact this is the first time he originated his own role on Broadway. "I took over from Anthony Rapp in Rent, and I replaced Rick Lyon in Avenue Q," he said.

It falls to Broadway-bowing Jay Klaitz to fill Jack Black's XXX role of the overbearing and opinionated clerk. "Oh, man, I love him," admitted Klaitz. "He's inappropriate and bawdy and crazy and never stops saying what's on his mind. It's great being this guy." Some viewers might accuse Klaitz of channeling Black, but the actor claimed that he skipped the movie. "I saw it, of course, when it first came out and loved it, but I didn't want to see it after I got the role. I didn't want to, consciously or subconsciously, be mimicking what was going on in the film. I wanted to make sure that I was giving my own performance. I didn't want to be a complete caricature of somebody else."

Perhaps the neatest trick of the night was the schizophrenic skills of Jon Patrick Walker, who spends three-quarters of the evening as a nerdy customer known by his initials, T.M.P.M.I.T.W. (for The Most Pathetic Man In The World), and then in a flash of fantasy, he turns into The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, to do a duet with Chase.

"As an actor, to go from the most pathetic guy to the coolest is a gift, and I feel very grateful to get to do that," admitted Walker. Which is the most fun for him? He smiles. "Well, look, if you knew the amount of time I spent as a kid air guitaring in the mirror and fantasizing about being a rock 'n' roll star, you'd know playing Bruce Springsteen in that scene is sort of a dream come true. But you know what? I have a real affection for the other character as well because, ultimately, I feel like a music geek myself — someone who loves the trivia and music of rock 'n' roll. So there's a piece of me in both of those roles."

Anne Warren plays one of five old girlfriends of Chase's character who come back in clusters throughout the show — a geek chorus designed to hurt and haunt him. "This is the first time I've originated a part on Broadway," she said, conceding she'd been around the block before or at least across the street from Roseland at the Neil Simon. "My Broadway debut was a year ago — today — in Hairspray, replacing Lorraine in the ensemble."

One of the lead producers, Kevin McCollum, was born in Hawaii and had no qualms about opening the show on Dec. 7, the 65th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombings.

He and Jeffrey Seller and Robyn Goodman showered the opening with stars and creators from Avenue Q — composer Robert Lopez, book writer Jeff Whitty, director Jason Moore — and the Drowsy Chaperone contingent (Bob Martin, Lenny Wolfe, Danny Burstein) joined the party after their regular performance, as did Rent players.

Ann Harada, Avenue Q's original Christmas Eve, was very much in season and back from London where she opened the Tony-winning musical there. She was flashing baby pictures around of her two-year-old, Elvis. Yes, she sighed helplessly, "I'm a believer."

The two people Bobbie directed to Tonys 10 years ago — James Naughton and Bebe Neuwirth — were in attendance, supporting him. Neuwirth said she was going to do Chicago one mo' time, for three months starting Jan. 3 — but this time as Roxie Hart. "I was rehearsing a dance yesterday that I had done as Velma with Roxie — and I kept seeing me coming in from the other side. It was a pretty weird experience." Chita Rivera is another Roxie who started out a Velma — but then Neuwirth owes her two Tonys to roles that were previously played by Rivera — on stage (Chicago) and screen ("Sweet Charity").

In Lindsay-Abaire's camp was his Fuddy Meers star, Marylouise Burke, back from a Philadelphia gig (Jeffrey Hatcher's play, Murderers, directed by Michael Bush), and there for Walker — for the third time — was his wife, Hope Davis, busy actress and mother. And Colella had her Urban Cowboy (Matt Cavanagh) come over after his Grey Gardens performance.

Also attending: Mark Hampton, Ruthie Henshall and hubby Tom Howard of Rent, Alec Baldwin and Joseph Cross (both of "Running with Scissors"), Victoria Tennant, NY Mets' Ron Darling, "Ring of Fire"'s Lari White, directors Sidney Lumet and Daisy Prince, Mary Poppins' Gavin Lee, Anne Runolfsson, playwrights John Guare and Terrence McNally, Dana Delany of TV's "Kidnapped," Karen Ziemba (bound for Curtains and, before that, the Rosemary Clooney salute at 92nd St. Y), Constantine Maroulis (finished with The Wedding Singer, now brushing up on his Jacques Brel), composers Stephen Flaherty and David Yazbek, Legally Blonde director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, Brel helmsman Gordon Greenberg (bracing me for "big news" about his incoming Pirates), Kurt Vonnegut, Jason Danieley, Greg Naughton with Kelli O'Hara (L.A.-bound for the Sunday in the Park with George Reprise! with Manoel Felciano and Nancy Dussault), The Del Fuegos' Dan Zanes, John Lloyd Young (fresh from his Jersey Boys next door to Roseland), Saturday Night Fever's Paige Price and Orfeh (the latter with hubby Andy Karl, Wicked's producer (David Stone) and composer (Stephen Schwartz).

The company of <i>High Fidelity</i> takes its opening night bow.
The company of High Fidelity takes its opening night bow. Photo by Ben Strothmann
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